Henna Night – Female solidarity defines old rituals. (Theatre Review)
Mercury with Red Line Productions.
Old Fitz Theatre from 5 – 9 July. You can grab your tickets here.
In Turkey, the traditional Henna night wedding ritual celebrated one woman renouncing her family and formally committing to becoming the conduit for the new generation of her betrothed. It was a night of women, when a female elder would pray, and a mother would hand her daughter over to the inevitability of patriarchal tradition, which included sacrificing the free life of the young woman for the sake of a future family, and the mother-in-law would accept responsibility of the young woman and her future offspring. The henna in the young bride’s hands represented the blood of lost virginity, and also the warrior like passion required to renounce one’s life for the sake of religion and obligation. With the rise of feminism and the demise of strict religious practises, the Henna night was discarded as an outdated symbol of patriarchy. However in recent times, the Henna night has been revived in the pre wedding plans. The new Henna night is about rites of passage, reverence for traditions and most of all, solidarity among women. It’s a girl’s only affair where rather than celebrate patriarchy, they enjoy the combined company of women from each family getting to know each other and forming bonds. Rather than support patriarchy, it acknowledges support for each other in the unpleasant fact of living under such cultural rule. (Data taken from Consuming Ritual: reframing the Turkish Henna-Night ceremony)
It is this spirt, this idea of female solidarity in the face of what we mutual experience that is at the heart of Amy Rosenthal’ s Henna Night. Judith (Jane Angharad) finds herself on the brink of suicide, pregnant out of her apartment and suddenly without the support of her significant other who has left her for another woman. She leaves a dramatic message on his answering machine, declaring her love, her pregnancy and her commitment to either dying her hair or committing suicide in the morning. As she prepares to make her decision, Ros (Romney Stanton) turns up at her doorstep. Ros is the new girlfriend. She has been shopping for furniture at Ikea, and she is now in the apartment Judith used to inhabit. If women labouring under patriarchal legislation think they are leading the way in branching away from traditions that refuse to support them, they find they are beaten to the punch by their men. Judith’s ex has moved on, no longer interested in her and any potential offspring. He’s embraced a new lover and is setting up home with her. Marriage is happening but it is not with the woman who may or may not be pregnant. If he can’t understand why his old love can’t just move on, Ros can. She understands Judith’s pain and perhaps sees what is inevitable that he will eventually leave her for someone else, repeating this pattern. She comes to Judith with a woman’s question – are you really pregnant? Because a woman knows pregnancy will change everything. She is the new bride, but she is not the one carrying the baby. In this very modern henna night the two women find themselves one wife divided into two, and the only chance either has of escaping becoming a victim of patriarchy is to unite. Here is the key to such a clever play. It is in solidarity that women overcome injustice, not division.
Henna Night is a delightfully clever play. Beautifully and simply written, this incarnation on the late show stage is strongly performed by Jane Angharad and Romney Stanton. Its power is in its premise, so writer Amy Rosenthal is able to keep the rest of the play light and swift, packing a power punch with its point without labouring. Mercury Theatre Company have Glen Hamilton directing and together with stage manager Harley Williams they make great use of the Old Fitz stage still set up for Inner Voices, now made to look like a dingy apartment perfectly in keeping with the shows premise. Hamilton keeps the mood to the every-day using the weight of the premise to give the production its depth. This gives the audience a sense that something profound is happening while the performances seem disarmingly simple. Rosenthal’s appeal to a cross cultural narrative while keeping the play firmly within the Western gaze gives rise to the sense of the universality of patriarchy and the complexities the women are labouring under. Henna Night then becomes a respectful acknowledgement of women going through the same sorts of problems around the world, rather than a sense of clumsy appropriation or tedious cross cultural unification message. There is no preaching going on in Henna Night, particularly with this delicate production, and this means the audience is free to retain and enjoy the many layers in the plays gift.
Henna Night is only on for a short run at The Old Fitz. Catch it while you can.